(Note: This spread isn’t exactly a pepper jelly, although I include it in the Series. Makes it easier to find, after all. Besides, my blog, my choice. You want it someplace else, get your own blog…)
Texas has plenty of prickly pear to go around. Cows love the stuff. (Thorns and all.) Nopal, Spanish for cactus, really applies to this stuff in the Southwest where we consume the tasty preparation called nopalitos.
Somehow, even in the middle of one of the worst droughts ever, there’s a good crop of prickly pear fruit here in Texas. Those fruit are great for eating. And for making jelly.
At first it would seem to be too much trouble to go after something with millions of sharp barbs, just for the honor of cooking them down to make jelly. However, once you’ve locked your lips around the Texas-sweet goodness of a well-made prickly pear jelly, you’ll want it badly enough to consider giving it a go.
Actually, it’s not as hard as you might imagine.
Oh, gathering the fruit can be a challenge. You need heavy gloves, some sturdy clothes and boots, a big bucket, a sharp knife, and great balance and manual dexterity. You would also do well to have some towels soaked in ice water and a strong personal resistance to environmental heat. (And tweezers for pulling out thorns.) These fruit tend to ripen in August, you see. And even if you’ve never been to Texas you know it’ll get a might tad warm down here this time of year.
Fortunately, my daughter Jessica
coerced her boyfriend Kai into getting all the gear together and doing the heavy lifting while she supervised collected several pounds of nice, ripe, purple-red prickly pears. Then she got them delivered to me with a request that I turn these odd-shaped nuggets into a jelly for her. Who does she think here dad is, some kind of cooking madman with lots of time on his hands? How could I resist?
First, I washed the fruit carefully. (Some experts suggest cleaning in bleach; I don’t think that’s necessary or very tasty.) I tried to burn most of the thorns off, but my grill burners weren’t strong enough. No problem, I could still scrape them off with an old sponge. (I then tossed the sponge away, believe me.) I quartered up the fruit and placed them in a saucepan with about 2½ cups of water. I boiled this mixture for ten minutes or so, until the fruit was very soft. I smashed the fruit using a hand-held tater masher. I wouldn’t recommend doing anything stronger, such as using a stick blender, as I’m sure there are still some small spines in there and you don’t want to break those things up! They could get into the jelly. Not to mention the seeds…
After the fruit pulp had cooled to almost room temperature, I set up a fine sieve (over a pot) with two old dish towels on it, then I carefully transferred the saucepan’s contents to the center of the towels. After gravity drain I carefully wrapped the towels into a ball and twisted slightly to squeeze out some more juice. Since there’s a slight chance that the pulp still has some small thorns I took extreme care not to force this step; no leaks, thanks! If I was really worried I’d have filtered the juice again, maybe through coffee filters. However, that seemed to be unnecessary. (All you folks who do the taste-testing, you let me know for next time, okay?)
The juice is slightly translucent and very red, with hints of purple. It looks like it would stain everything in sight. However, the color rinses off clean and clear with running water. This liquid isn’t quite ready for jelly, though! No acid, no pectin to speak of.
I went out to the garden and picked about a cup of Thai basil leaves. I steeped these in a cup of lemon juice, making an amazingly fragrant mixture. After filtering out the green bits I added the lemon juice to the pear syrup, all in a saucepan. I now had about four cups of liquid, perfect for a batch of jelly.
Next up: Sweetener. I used 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of sucralose. I mixed 3 tablespoons of low-sugar pectin into the sugar and put it all into the syrup early. I wanted the pectin to get completely activated by boiling. Once all the sweetener and pectin were in and dissolved, I boiled the liquid for about five minutes. (I had to use a pat of butter to keep the foaming action down.) Then a quick transfer to sterilized jars and an 8-minute boiling water bath process and the jelly was all sealed and done.
This jelly’s an unusual color. Not exactly a grape; not a plum. The purple hue is almost fluorescent. The smell is intriguing. Prickly pear isn’t like any other fruit you’ve ever tasted, I guarantee. Not tropical, not tree-fruit, clearly not citrus. It’s unique.
And yes, Jess, the jars are ready for you to pick up…
Enjoy the (Tasty Red-Death Jelly) Heat!
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